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Losing Colorado's Heritage to Time and Vandals

Larry Thunberg and Nancy Spencer Rosenburg cross a snowfield at 14,000 feet below the old miner's cabin and the summit of Mount Democrat in July, 1976. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

One of the most disheartening things in this modern age is the disappearance of so much of Colorado's old heritage. I've tramped and explored around the whole Colorado rectangle for a lot of years, prying into hidden corners and canyons, climbing cliffs and peaks, exploring ramshackle mines and silvered ghost towns and now I feel fortunate that I was able to do that since so many shreds of the old days are gone.

I was thinking about this lost heritage last night after I scanned these two photographs taken in July 1976 just below the summit of 14,148-foot Mount Democrat, one of five Fourteeners west of Fairplay, a historic mining town. At that time, 44 years ago, an old miner's cabin, dating from the 1870s or 1860s, still stood proud above 14,000 feet.

The weathered plank building had withstood decades of hurricane-force winds, driving snowstorms, and heavy summer downpours. Unfortunately, like all things old, the ravages of time eventually reduced the cabin to a pile of debris, a crumpled reminder of glory days in the Mosquito Range.

The whole range is heavily mineralized and was first explored by the Pikes Peak or Bust Fifty-Niners, those hardy men and women who trekked west in search of gold and silver riches after the Civil War. In Buckskin Gulch below Mount Democrat, the town of Buckskin Joe was settled in 1860, the site of one of the first gold discoveries in Colorado by a mob of miners including Joseph Higginbottom AKA Buckskin Joe, nicknamed for his frontier garb.

After the placer deposits and shallow lodes ran out in 1866, Buckskin Joe became a ghost town and was supplanted by Fairplay down the valley, which thrived as a miner's supply station. The Mosquito Range, running from Hoosier Pass to Trout Creek Pass, boasts over 18,000 claims and 952 mines since those early beginnings.

I've been trying to find the record for the claim for that mine on Mount Democrat and when it was filed, but haven't had any luck yet. Plenty of other old mine structures are either still standing in the Mosquitos or have recently toppled, like the iconic Hilltop Mine at 12,850 feet on 14,036-foot Mount Sherman's southern slopes. I'll scan and post a photo of that amazing mine building as it looked back in the 1970s.

Besides time and weather destroying the old buildings and cabins, people have aided and abetted in their demise. Vandals sometimes tear planks off them. Some dig in the ruins for old coins or rusted tin cans. Back in the '70s a lot of people took apart weathered heritage buildings to use the "barn wood" for picture frames, door frames, or installing them in their dens for the rustic look.

If you're scrambling around in the high country here in Colorado or in other western states, take the time to look at the remaining mining buildings you find and look but don't touch. It won't be long before they're all pieces of driftwood on mountain slopes.

The old cabin below the summit of Mount Democrat. Even in July 1976, the cabin was coming apart. Drifts of winter snow filled the inside. A couple years after I shot this photo, I sat out a rain squall in the cabin. It's hard to imagine working and living at this altitude and in the harsh climate where winter lasts from late September until June. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

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